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Adios Mi Abuelo

I have been thinking a lot about Alejandro Robaina, the late great tobacco grower of Cuba. It’s hard to think about the 91-year-old no longer being there. He died of cancer last Saturday at home in his bed, and I can’t bear the thought of him not being on his farm,  sitting on his terrace in his rocking chair and holding court with a cigar in his hand.

I don’t exactly remember when I met him, but it has to be close to 20 years ago. I first saw him on a trip to Pinar del Río in the early 1990s at the beginning of Cigar Aficionado magazine. Some representatives of Cubatabaco, the name then for the global distribution company for Cuban cigars, Habanos S.A., took me to his small farm to show me what an independent tobacco grower on the island was like.

I couldn’t believe how welcoming he was with his wife, sister, brother and children all living on the farm. They all lived in a couple of block-like houses of four bedrooms around the perimeter of the building and a simple sitting room and kitchen in the center. There were no glass windows, just shutters. And they had one lone light bulb hanging from the sitting room and one in the kitchen. I remember the bathroom didn’t have warm water and toilet paper and their toothbrushes were frayed like steel wool from years of use. Sometimes there was no soap as well.

I think you get the idea. It was a very simple life as a farmer in Pinar del Río. “It’s difficult,” he would say. “But we do the best we can.”

Yet Alejandro was so warm, friendly, and generous. I felt a little guilty back then coming for lunch, as he and his family would serve a hearty meal of roasted chicken, fried pork, crunchy green banana slices, rice, black beans, and tomatoes. It all came from their farm. It was some of the best food I ever ate in my life–full of flavor and affection.

He loved to talk about tobacco before, during and after lunch. How it was farmed. How it grew. How it was cured. And he loved smoking and talking about how particular cigars smoked. I learned so much from him about everything that had to do with tobacco and cigars. He always said that tobacco was like a beautiful woman. “If you didn’t treat it gently, with love and care, you would ruin her.”

He used to always show me his prized possession—a mechanical gramophone. He used to play some vinyl records from the 1940s and 1950s, such as Benny Moré or other Cuban musicians from the period. A scratchy, muffled sound came from the mechanical record player’s funnel-like speaker. “They don’t make them like this anymore,” he would sweetly say.

Once in a while, I would stay overnight and we would talk into the late hours of the night smoking cigars and drinking Havana Club seven-year-old rum. The combination of the slightly warm rum and fascinating conversation would warm my soul. I feel good now writing about it. There were no lights outside on the porch, so we sat in the dark and talked with the moon dimly lighting our faces. We almost whispered as not to interrupt the music of the crickets and other sounds of the country night.

He insisted on giving me his room to sleep in. “You are part of the family now,” he said, with a smile. Once, I almost froze to death in his room because he had installed an air conditioner and it was on full throttle and he didn’t tell me how to turn it down. I told him that his room was like a meat locker. He almost fell out of his chair laughing when I told him. Alejandro continued to tease me about that to his last days!

I only had the chance to reciprocate his hospitality about ten years ago when he was on a promotional trip in Italy. I picked him up with his grandson Hiroshi in Milan, and they stayed at my home in Tuscany for three days. I organized a couple of dinners with friends. I took them around to different wines and farms and tourist sites. Hiroshi had his first “real” pizza at my local pizzeria and still talks about it today. At most of the dinners Hiroshi wore his gray suit, which I bought for him and brought to Cuba a few months before. It was his first suit.

They slept in a small apartment in my village that I rented for them. And one morning I walked up to the apartment and found them still asleep in their beds with no heat and in their clothes. They didn’t know how to turn on the heat. I didn’t realize that they wouldn’t because there is no central heating in most houses in Cuba.

I took Alejandro to visit a local peasant named Alvaro, and he was pleased to see the size and beauty of his two white cows and one bull in the stalls of his tiny farm. The Italian farmer pulled out some of his homemade moonshine, and we all got a little drunk. Alvaro and Alejandro were talking for a number of hours—Alejandro in Spanish and Alvaro in Italian—about farming and livestock and other affairs. “Next time I come to Italy I am going to stay with Alvaro,” he said with a smile. “We have a lot in common.”

I saw him a few months later in Pinar del Río and he had the biggest smile on his face. He said that the Italian trip was one of his best ever.  I think it was the same year that I went to Düsseldorf and cigar merchant Christopher Wolters organized some events for the tobacco man at his parent’s hotel and cigar shop. It was then I realized that Alejandro couldn’t see. His cataracts had gotten so bad that he had no vision.

Photo by James Orr

Christopher and I organized a visit to an ophthalmologist and the doctor showed Alejandro a picture of a small elephant on a piece of typewriter paper from about five feet a way, and he thought it was a mouse. We pulled what little money we had to pay for the operation, but the Cuban ambassador in Germany stopped us at the last minute and said it would be done back on the island. The operation in Havana about six months later was successful.

By that time, Alejandro seemed to be flying around the world to different dinners, smokers and story openings. I couldn’t keep track where he was: Madrid, Mexico City, Hong Kong and the rest. He always wanted to visit America. I used to joke at the time that Cuba now had three icons: Fidel Castro, musician Compay Segundo of Buena Vista Social Club and Alejandro Robaina. Alas, the last two are no longer with us.

I have many more stories of Alejandro and our conversations, but my fingers are a little tired from the emotion of writing some of them for you. I can tell you that I am going to miss mi abuelo Cubano—my Cuban grandfather. I know that his farm is in good hands with his son Carlos and grandson Hiroshi, but it’s not going to be the same to go back to his beautiful tobacco farm in the heart of Pinar del Río. In fact, life will never be the same.

You can follow James Suckling on Twitter:

Art Sacks April 21, 2010 5:25pm ET
We all lost on this one James, but you were very lucky to know him so well.
Steven Marsh Phoenix, AZ April 21, 2010 6:58pm ET
James, it is great memories like those that reveal the true form of immortality.
M M Chicago April 21, 2010 8:35pm ET
Best blog I have read on CA since subscribing many years ago. Well done James - you were blessed to have met the man and I get the distinct impression he would have said the same about meeting you.
Andy Klueber Terre Haute, IN USA April 22, 2010 3:06am ET
Yep it was sad news to hear (I guess they need some tobacco GROWERS up there. Adding the news of the loss of Frank Llaneza and Pedro Martin we are lossing the Old MASTER'S of tobacco. But thankfully we still have Don Carlos, Jose Orlando Pardon and Rolando Reyes still with us. And hopefully from MANY MANY years to come. And for the one we losted they are in heaven where I hear they grow great tobacco for some GREAT cigars.
James Suckling April 22, 2010 10:30am ET
I just spoke on Skype to Carlos Robaina, the son of Alejandro, and it was so hard. He was at the farm in Pinar del Rio. I felt like crying. I was lost for words in Spanish, and English for that matter.

He said that they were doing the best they could but that it was really hard that "papi" was not there. His son was working on renovating the family house just like his father wanted. They were getting on with life with (our) their beloved.

"And we are going to grow the best tobacco in the world just like we have always done," he said.

He said that I was always welcomed in their home like one of the family.

It breaks my heart.
James Suckling April 22, 2010 10:35am ET
I just spoke on Skype to Carlos Robaina, the son of Alejandro, and it was so hard. He was at the farm in Pinar del Rio. I felt like crying. I was lost for words in Spanish, and English for that matter.

He said that they were doing the best they could but that it was really hard that "papi" was not there. His son was working on renovating the family house just like his father wanted. They were getting on with life with (our) their beloved.

"And we are going to grow the best tobacco in the world just like we have always done," he said.

He said that I was always welcomed in their home like one of the family.

It breaks my heart.
Jose Blanco Dominican Republic April 22, 2010 12:52pm ET
I had the pleasure of meeting Alejandro and his family twice and like james said warm and kind in my humble opinion Cuba has lost it's biggest icon.when i would visit him we would talk for hours and we would share cigars also he would give me wrapper to bring back to DR and we would fool around with itOne of the cigars that we put on that wrapper was a 100 A¿os Corona and one day in Vegas at a BS James came in and i gave him one and he liked it so much that he mentioned on one of his blogsAll cigar smokers that knew at least the name know that the industry has lost a great man
Sergio Hollywood, CA April 22, 2010 6:44pm ET
James, my sincere condolences to his family and to you and the intimate friends he had.
Bob Knight Colorado Springs, CO April 22, 2010 10:14pm ET
Beautifully expressed. Thank you, James.
Terry Pultz fleischmanns, new york April 23, 2010 1:56am ET
James, It has been a pleasure reading your articles about Alejandro, it is through your eyes,ears, and travels to Cuba that has opened my eyes to learn about such a great man. I want to express my feeling to you about losing such a great friend, thank you for sharing your articles about him.
Beto Salatini Sao Paulo, Brazil April 23, 2010 10:10am ET
This is the most memorable article I have read on CA.Thank you, James.
Lewis Lefevre Elizabeth, CO April 24, 2010 1:47pm ET
Great article James, he sure was a great man and is a legend in the Cigar world. I wish I would have had the pleasure to meet him
Paul Lawatsch Victor, NY April 26, 2010 3:44pm ET
I have read your commentaries since I subscribed to the Magazine back in 1994...Well done!Because of your take on Cuban cigars primarily, I wanted your opinion on the R&J Robusto LE 2007?I appreciate Monty #2's, R&J Short Churchills, Partagas Series D, but nothing too powerful...I read your piece recently on Ligero leaf and have always been a fan of aging...Please advise on this particular cigar...Thanks
Gary Capraro April 27, 2010 11:45pm ET have captured and related the essence of respect and friendship in your writings here..I am moved by your talent..Thank you for letting us in your world..And I am sure your friend will be watching over you the rest or your day's..
Eben D Iller Ft Myers FL April 28, 2010 10:50am ET
James, Is is a blessing that Robaina was blessed with a Grandson that now runs the show, Hiroshi, Who I am sure will carry on the great traditions of the past. Aficionados the world over have traveled to see and learn from this Master as to know the man who is responsible for some of the best known cigars on the planet. Now Hiroshi has big shoes to fill, and has been doing so for some time so im sure there are no worries.Robaina being an independent tobacco grower, even after Casto took power, leaves us knowing the resolve and strength of purpose of such a man. And to know that his tobacco was even awarded the best in country by the Cuban Government and with Casto himself giving Robaina the award that event would have been really worth seeing.My feeling is that as the torch gets carried into this new decade of 2010 plus, we are in the midst of many more changes of the guard and with new growing techniques and more quality land from Nicaragua, Ecuador to Wisconsin being cultivated the better cigars we will all see. So a toast to Robaina and his family as I sat on my dock the other night and enjoy a great cigar and a nice drab of 30 year old Laphroaig in remembrance and in wonder of the past and future.Life is a pleasure.Eben Miller

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